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An Eye for An Eye: Capital Punishment and Ethical Theories

Updated on May 28, 2014

Eye for an Eye

An Eye for an Eye is a popular statement referencing retributivism and the need to punish people for their wrongdoings. Do people who harm others deserve to be harmed in the same manner? More importantly, if they commit premeditated first degree murder, should we kill them upon conviction of the crime as punishment? Some say yes, it’s the consequences of the actions and deters others from committing the same act, others say no, there is uncertainty of true guilt due to human errors in the court system and that capital punishment makes us no better than murderers.

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Ethical Theories and Retributivism

Two theories conflict with each other and with themselves when comparing their core beliefs and applying them to capital punishment, and then taking their specific views on retributivism and applying it to capital punishment. Utilitarianism rejects retributivism, but supports acts that bring happiness to more people. Kant rejects killing in any sense as it creates a universal law, but approves of retributivism to the extent of matching the punishment to the crime.

Utilitarianism's Principle of Utility would focus on the consequences of a killing, bearing in mind if the consequences bring a greater amount of happiness to more people than harm, that we should decide that yes it is ok. In this regard, we would say, yes, Utilitarians agree because of the happiness generated from the victim’s families, the future victims lives saved, one less reason to worry. However; Utilitarianism specifically refutes retributivism. A Utilitarian approach strongly disagrees with retributivism believing no act warrants punishment (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). Utilitarians focus on creating happiness, thus they would not find murder very happy, but one thing they do not consider is retributivism provides the happiness they base their theory on through the happiness of future victims of a killer should he escape or be released from prison, the victim’s families, and the community who would be less worried about others committing the same deed without fear of consequences. Additionally, it does not take into consideration the happiness resulting from tax payers not having to support a killer in prison for life.

Kant would use his categorical imperative of stating if you choose to kill, you are accepting that all people should kill; you are advocating a universal law of it being okay to kill. Thus, killing would be wrong in this regard. He did not focus on exceptions—ever, except in retributivism. Kantians agree with Retributivism. Kantians believe punishment is just when it is delivered to the guilty, and is a deterrent in from immoral behavior for one contemplating murder (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). Kantians approve of capital punishment, or murder, only when certain circumstances are met: when one is convicted of killing another with pre-meditation (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). In this theory it creates a universal law that it is okay to kill a killer. How does this not conflict with his categorical imperative of only doing something that creates a universal law and that there are no exceptions?

Retributivism has three propositions; all guilty deserve punishment, only the guilty deserve it, and punishments should match the crimes (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). Some say this is inhumane, others say it’s necessary.

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Retributivism/Capital Punishment Arguments

Opponents

Opponents argue many things regarding the death penalty. From religious rights, civil rights, human error and cruelty; ultimately they believe no one should kill another.

Opponents argue the eighth amendment of the United States’ constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishments and the infliction of unnecessary pain in the execution of the death sentence (Clark, 2013). They argue there is no way to execute a person without any pain whatsoever, thus it violates the constitution.

Opponents express there is no evidence capital punishment deters murderers (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). They argue in the absence of providing proof it helps deter future murders, that proponents cannot state with certainty that it is a tool used as a deterrent.

Opponents also argue the killer could be innocent because our system is not infallible (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). They argue that we cannot turn a blind eye to potential innocents being killed through execution and not be considered murderers ourselves. There were 139 people released from death row in the last 30 years (Clark, 2013). These 139 individuals are argued to be innocent, however they were not all released due proven innocence, but they were released due to technical difficulties, appeals, and other issues. That being said, there are innocent individuals that can be convicted.

Opponents also argue that we are as morally wrong as killers when we kill them. They declare if we execute killers, we might as well rape and mutilate rapists and mutilators (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). They argue if supporters use the basis of an eye for an eye theory, then we should deliver all punishments in the same way they were convicted of committing.

Finally, the majority of opponents argue all people should recognize the dignity of every human (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). They argue that we are not to judge others and we should all respect the dignity of every human.

Proponents

Proponents argue that there may be no evidence that capital punishment deters because would-be murderers do not inform surveyors they were “going” to kill but decided against it due to the death penalty. But…why gamble? We cannot determine how many people would have died if capital punishment didn’t exist.

Clark, 2013, states “The U.S. homicide rate which includes murder and non-negligent manslaughter, dropped from 24,526 in 1993 to 15,522 in 1999, the lowest since 1966 - during a period of increased use of the death penalty” (para 24). This data cannot be disputed as not being a result of the death penalty acting as a deterrent. Clearly impacts were made that are linked directly to the increased use of the death penalty. How many lives may have been saved?

Per Clark, 2013 “In most states, executions are a very rare occurrence; only a very tiny proportion of murderers are sentenced to death in the first place - about 1.5%. In 2010 just 114 death sentences were handed down in the whole country. Only a small proportion of those sentenced to death are eventually executed, some may have their sentence reduced on appeal, some will die of natural causes awaiting execution” (para. 9). But the fact that capital punishment exists, regardless of the small number being executed, is a deterrent enough and a better bet than the alternative of not having consequences of committing pre-meditated murder. The evidence is shown in the drop of murders while executions were at its highest.

Proponents acknowledge the system is not infallible and some innocents may be wrongly convicted and killed. However, in this case, they are not arguing about killing a killer, they are arguing about an ancillary system that facilitates guilty verdicts. Fix the system, not the source of punishment.

They also argue a very small number are innocent and killed in error (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). Not that we don’t value their lives, but the system provides jury, judge, legislation, and representation. If these pieces of justice failed, again, it is the result of ancillary services, not from allowing the death penalty. Death delivery is the consequence, everything else is ancillary. If opponents truly believe the system is broken and that is their only concern, they should seek to fix the non-stationary issues.

Proponents disagree that we are as morally wrong as killers when we kill them. This is not the case because the executioner doesn’t have a primal desire to pre-meditate someone’s death. They deliver a needle to a vein. They have no intent other than to fulfill their duties. This is far different than a person roaming the streets to find a victim to murder.

Pro-Death Penalty supporters disagree with opponents who state if we kill killers, we might as well rape and mutilate rapists and mutilators (Rachels & Rachels, The Right Thing To Do, 2010 ). That would take a person who is disturbed enough to have an affinity for and gain pleasure from this type of sick act. We do not kill premeditated murderers for pleasure, and it’s simply an injection given, not an act of violence or torture; in fact they get to die a much nicer way than their victims.

Proponents also agree to recognize the dignity of humans, as long as they are dignified. As the social contract theory would state, if this person broke the contract and took a life, he is owed nothing from us, not even dignity. If this murderer couldn’t recognize the dignity of another human, where is the validity in the argument that they deserve what they do not give?

Proponents declare that capital punishment provides closure for families. It provides a sense of therapy. They argue Retribution is a teacher. Per Clark, 2013, “Execution is a very real punishment rather than some form of "rehabilitative" treatment, the criminal is made to suffer in proportion to the offence. It is also felt by many families of murder victims to be a strong reason for witnessing the execution of their loved one's murderer, in states that allow this, as it provides closure for them” (para. 32). Of course it does. Why would a family whose loved one was taken away, be agreeable to knowing a the murderer who took the life of their loved one continue to have his own?

Capital Punishment Poll

Should convicted first-degree murderers get the death penalty?

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On the fence? Research shows murderers will kill again

Conclusion

Retributivism in the form of capital punishment is not revenge, it is the learning technique adopted by parents, consequence and punishment teaches. It deters would-be killers and it saves lives by taking a murderer off the streets. Murderers are owed nothing when they take the irreplaceable life of another.

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      Seb tickilyballs 2 years ago

      great quote

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      Seb tickilyballs 2 years ago

      i agree josh kerdick

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      josh kerdick 2 years ago

      good quote man